The international community's strategy of indifference towards a resurgence of hostilities will hardly halt belligerent rhetoric and curb new turmoil in the Horn of Africa. Fiery oral exchanges and intemperate threats from both sides of the frail Ethiopian-Eritrean border have merely provoked an outpouring of emotionally charged language replete with plots of invasion and war-mongering.

Fear of reigniting brutal warfare has been rekindled in recent months over the escalation of a festering border dispute between Ethiopia and its northern neighbour, Eritrea. Almost a decade ago, the two sub-Saharan African nations began a war over the border exacting a tragic toll of 100 000 dead, which culminated in the current political stalemate.

Although both parties accepted as final a United Nations-sponsored binding arbitration established by the Boundary Commission, the ruling over a border town in April 2002 left Ethiopia bemused and in defiance of the concluding arbitration. While both nations have exacerbated the conflict to suit their internal political agendas, the commission may have allowed for a more expeditious recognition and demarcation of the Ethiopia-Eritrea border had Ethiopia not reneged on a 2000 peace agreement signed in Algiers.

The avowed geopolitical alliance and cordial diplomatic relations between the United States and Ethiopia should not undermine Addis Ababa's commitment to comply with international law in demarcating the border under the Algiers agreement. Eritrea, on the other hand, backed by binding legal stipulations, must halt troop build-up in the demilitarised zone, allowing UN peacekeepers to promote stability.

Further east, in neighbouring Somalia, a joint deployment of Somali and Ethiopian forces last year at the gates of the capital, Mogadishu, ended years of clan-based factional fighting, disbanded warlord fiefdoms and repealed the Union of Islamic Courts' (UIC) strict applications of sharia law. However, it also stoked fears of lawlessness, dictatorial rule, renewed hostilities and possible retaliatory terrorist attacks by Islamists against potential targets in nearby states.

Since then, Somalia's transitional federal government has faced mounting pressure to accommodate an African Union peacekeeping force ready to replace outgoing Ethiopian troops stationed across the country to help maintain stability. Indeed, the vast majority of Somalis view the presence of Ethiopian troops on the streets of Mogadishu as an unacceptable occupying force.

Unfortunately, to date only 1 600 Ugandan peacekeepers together with a Burundian skeleton force of 94 troops make up the AU mission in Somalia, while other African states are reluctant to deploy troops to the war-ravaged East African state over safety concerns.

Meanwhile, Addis Ababa has reiterated its commitment to remain in Somalia for the foreseeable future until a sufficient AU force is deployed. Ethiopia's support for Somali President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed's government stems from Addis Ababa's wish to counter Islamic expansion into the region. But Ethiopia is also cognisant of the looming threat from its arch-enemy Eritrea, which is widely suspected to have supplied the UIC with arms and military trainers while fuelling attempts by Islamists to take back Ethiopia's Somali-speaking Ogaden region.

In what the UN describes as "the worst humanitarian crisis in Africa", Somalia's problems have recently intensified. While Ethiopian tanks and troops struggle to rein in the anarchy besetting Mogadishu, many are questioning Addis Ababa's agenda in exacerbating an already aggravated crisis. It's apparent that Ethiopian presence in Somalia is as much of a hindrance to peace and stability as the American presence is in Iraq. Indeed, many consider Somalia to be Africa's Babylon.

As the likelihood of proactive diplomacy dwindles and the dangers of complacency set in, risk of an escalating armed conflict is real. The chances of initiating a sustainable peace accord rest on the ability and agility of a more robust AU force to help stabilise Mogadishu. And herein lays the conundrum, with a less-than-obliging AU force that has been slow to intervene with strong peacekeeping forces. This is compounded by the lack of support for the transitional federal government in Mogadishu, let alone across the country. Its strength relies on the Ethiopian force to support its mission strategically and militarily. If Ethiopians were to leave, the resulting power vacuum may further heighten tensions in the region.

Rather than attempt to coerce leaders with bellicose ultimatums, regional powers and the international community should instead wield their influence in an attempt to avert reactionary responses by any party, encourage compliance to international law and diffuse troop remobilisation in an effort to help reinstate the rule of law in a lawless land.

While the world once again turns the other check to unspeakable atrocities and mass starvation in Somalia, increasing signs of resumed armed confrontation between Ethiopia and Eritrea may well descend the region back into chaos. Their festering border dispute, widely seen as being played out in Somalia's protracted civil conflict, threatens to unravel the region into a contagious epidemic of intractable instability and bring the Horn of Africa one step closer to cataclysmic war.

The international community must understand that proactive intervention and concerted mediation today will outweigh reactive emergency measures in the future.

Also published in Biddo newspaper, Eritrea

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